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How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

by David Howard

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Acclaimed USC screenwriting teacher David Howard has guided hundreds of students to careers in writing for film and television. Drawing on decades of practical experience and savvy, How to Build a Great Screenplay deconstructs the craft of screenwriting and carefully reveals how to build a good story from the ground up. Howard eschews the "system" offered by


Acclaimed USC screenwriting teacher David Howard has guided hundreds of students to careers in writing for film and television. Drawing on decades of practical experience and savvy, How to Build a Great Screenplay deconstructs the craft of screenwriting and carefully reveals how to build a good story from the ground up. Howard eschews the "system" offered by other books, emphasizing that a great screenplay requires dozens of unique decisions by the author. He offers in-depth considerations of:

* characterization
* story arc
* plotting and subplotting
* dealing with coincidence in story plotting
* classical vs. revolutionary screenplay structure
* tone, style, and atmosphere
* the use of time on screen
* the creation of drama and tension
* crucial moments in storytelling

Throughout the book, Howard clarifies his lessons through examples from some of the most successful Hollywood and international script-oriented films, including Pulp Fiction, American Beauty, Trainspotting, North by Northwest, Chinatown, and others. The end result is what could very well become the classic text in the field---a bible for the burgeoning screenwriter.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this companion to The Tools of Screenwriting, Howard, founding director of the graduate screenwriting program at the University of Southern California, deals specifically with story structure, focusing on elements like connecting with an audience, creating drama and tension, and building subplots. This book is less interactive and more textbookish, making it appropriate for screenwriting students; Howard's have gone on to pen the screenplays for successful films like Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“How to Build a Great Screenplay” is insightful, riveting, clear, concise and to the point. It’s a screenwriter’s screenwriting book packed with practical as well as theoretical insights. If you’re serious about screenwriting -- start here, and if you’re a twenty-year veteran, this is the place to take a refresher course. I came away from reading this book inspired with a renewed sense of purpose on why I write screenplays. This isn’t a book -- it’s an education!” —Jack Epps Jr., screenwriter Top Gun, Dick Tracy, Turner & Hooch, The Secret of My Success, and Legal Eagles.

“David Howard's How To Build A Great Screenplay is a rarity - not merely a 'how to' guide, but the most comprehensive and thoughtful examination of storytelling, and as close to an entire graduate writing program, as one is likely to find within the covers of a single book.
” —Adam Belanoff, writer and producer on Cosby and Murphy Brown, and writer on Wings

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How to Build a Great Screenplay

A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

By David Howard

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2004 David Howard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9478-1


The Story

Readers of The Tools of Screenwriting will remember there is one basic dramatic circumstance: Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it. This dramatic circumstance is at the heart of every well-written scene and is a significant element in every well-told story. But it isn't a definition of a story any more than this is a definition of a living human being: a heart pumping blood through veins and arteries to and from the lungs and brain for the replenishment of oxygen and nutrients. To look for a definition of a story, we must wrestle with a chicken-and-egg controversy. Can a story exist without an audience? Does the story attract an audience, or does the presence of an audience enable the story to become complete? Which comes first?

Clearly the material out of which a story is woven can exist without an audience. The words on a page or in the mouth of a storyteller don't need a reader or listener in order to exist. And a filmed story could exist with characters and events depicted on film, but never be seen by an audience. But in order for even one person to know the story — read the story, hear the story, see the story — then a transfer must be made. An audience of at least one is necessary for the transfer of a story to take place. Without that transfer from storyteller to audience, the story can be nothing more than ink on paper or sound waves or shades of color on film. That is to say, a story may exist outside of its audience, but it gains no value until it reaches an audience of at least one. The difference between an audience of one and an audience of millions is negligible, at least in defining what a story is and is not.

So a story requires an audience in order to have value, but what is that value? The teller of a story intends to have some kind of impact on his audience. The intention could be to make a friend laugh, to make a traffic cop not write a speeding ticket, to make a whole group of people think or cry or gasp or shriek. The intention could be to explain to the doctor where the pain is or to convince Mommy that "I'll die before dinner if I don't get a cookie right now!" Stories are used by nearly every human being nearly every day. We could then say: Stories involve the transfer of some kind of information from the teller to at least one person with an intention to create some kind of impact upon that audience. But not all information can create such an impact. Just pure data — numbers or lists of nuts and bolts — is transferable information, but it won't have an impact on the audience unless it already means something to them. A mechanic might be ecstatic to discover exactly what he needs in a list of nuts and bolts, but an indifferent audience would receive no impact from the same transfer of information.

Does this limit us to telling stories only to an audience that is already interested in the material? Not at all. The creation of interest within the audience is a crucial part of storytelling, and the means to achieve it is through character and action. One or more characters — who want something — provide the audience with the opportunity to connect with the transfer of information. Rather than depend upon the audience to bring a desire with them, a story itself should be capable of generating in the audience a desire to connect. But in a way, this brings us back to the chicken and the egg. Does the story itself automatically make the audience care, or is it the storytelling that makes them involved? Here, at least, we have a simple answer. It's the storytelling, not the events in the lives of the characters, that is the means to audience involvement, as we'll discuss at length.

But in classic chicken-and-egg fashion, the story has to exist for the storytelling to be created, so we must inevitably start with story. This is the beginning of work for every screenwriter.

The Chronology of Events

At first glance, a story appears to be nothing more than the sequence of events in the lives of the characters on screen. What happens first, what's next, what happens then, and so on until it's over. Clearly events have to occur for there to be something happening in a story. Everything can't happen at the same instant or we couldn't follow the action, so the events need to be laid out for the audience in a specific order. In life, events necessarily happen in chronological order, but not all stories follow an exact chronology. Still, in the lives of the characters — whether they are fictional or real makes no difference — the events must happen to them in chronological order. Events, and how they play out, influence subsequent events; they can have a direct impact on later events, or the influence can be indirect, through a character's preparation or reaction to an event. So understanding the sequence of events in the lives of the characters is a necessity for any storyteller even if the final story will have those events in a different order.

Any journey starts with the first step, but the story of a journey actually starts before that. The story would logically depict, at the very least, the last moment before the journey, then the first step, then the second, and on through to the last step. And the story would continue for at least another moment to show the completed journey. This step-by-step sequence is crucial information to have in building the story and storytelling. The start, the momentum created by the journey, the impact of the individual steps, the end — each of these elements must be part of the basic knowledge of the storyteller.

A Crucial Paradox

When imagining the events in a story, there is a strange paradox to consider. On the one hand, to reach and affect a wide audience, we want to make our events universal. But on the other hand, we must make the events we imagine specific so that they can be seen as "real and true." This battle between "the more universal the better" and "the more specific the better" trips up a great many beginning writers. One camp tends to create events that could take place anywhere, involving anyone of any description who could be wearing anything and who eats "food." The other camp tends to create events that could only take place at the corner of this street and that avenue in this city on this one day in human history and involving a person who is utterly specific: his hair is combed a certain way, he has an ingrown toenail on the big toe of his left foot, has green eyes (not blue), is missing his right canine tooth, and sucks on a mango-flavored sucker that is only made by such-and-such candy company in Toledo. Clearly there must be a middle ground.

Are specific and universal really contradictory goals? If by specific we mean "exclusive" or "utterly unique," then it tends to exclude universality. If by universal we mean "vague" or "all encompassing," it nearly negates specificity. But this isn't the only way to look at the question. All human beings share certain wants and needs, basic human events such as birth and death or hunger and yearning, and even such banal daily events as stubbed toes, sleepiness, or the enjoyment of a scrumptious sweet treat. Even if someone hasn't personally experienced a certain event, he probably knows someone who has or can at least imagine what it is like. But to spur that imagination, specifics are needed. So in fact, proper specificity promotes universality; the specifics of an event resonate in the memory or imagination of a universal audience that grasps the moment. And lack of specificity impedes universality, because it neither provokes memory nor imagination — the event is too vaguely depicted to stimulate the audience's thoughts and feelings.

Let's take that scrumptious sweet treat as an example. Almost any audience one could imagine attracting would have some experience of eating something sweet. But for the sake of argument, imagine a long-lost tribe that has no natural sweets in its world. Where the tribesmen find a theater or television is another story. But for argument, say they can't tell a bowl of ice cream from a piece of cake. They might not even know those are foods. The specificity of making a distinction between chocolate and vanilla ice cream will surely be lost on them. And in fact the visual of the ice cream may not be appealing to them. But if they witness the experience of a character eating and loving the ice cream, they should be able to imagine the joyful sensations they are seeing. They must have some sensual pleasure in their deprived part of the world that enables them to connect with the reaction of the character on screen enjoying his ice cream. In fact, the more clearly drawn the character and the more the eating of the ice cream is conveyed by the specific reactions of the character, the more able our disadvantaged tribe would be to imagine the sensation. The specific actions of the moment create the universal understanding or reaction within the audience.

This is how specific events lead to universal reactions — they provoke the memories and imaginations of the audience of similar experiences of their own. Without the specifics in the moment, the audience is left only with generic events, which tend not to stimulate the memory or imagination. Arbitrary and unutilized specifics are of no use in this situation, but well-conceived specifics that play into the events in the lives of the characters are key elements to be discovered in the invention of a story. But when is a specific arbitrary and when is it well conceived? If a specific description or attribute reveals nothing of the inner life of a character or nothing of interest in the past life of the character and will take on no significant role in the future of the story or the character, it probably is arbitrary or at least not well conceived. If an event or specific action that takes place in a scene gives no further information than its own existence, it quite possibly is unutilized.

But even something as simple and mundane as an itch can be useful. In Rear Window, L. B. Jeffries is in a cast up to his waist, and this is a crucial element in the story. Early in the film he has an itch deep inside the cast that frustrates him until he finally finds a long stick to thread between the cast and his leg. His satisfaction and relief when he is finally able to scratch his itch and the universal experience we all have of a difficult-to-reach itch help us identify with the character. It unites the audience and the character. While it serves no function in the story and sheds no light on the inner life of the character, this specific moment in his life is well worth its screen time because it creates a bond between the character and the audience. And it even fits with the story thematically, because it gives us an experience of shared frustration and then satisfaction — which is the exact circumstance of the overall story.

Life Is What Happens

The events portrayed in the lives of the characters must have specificity and must have their function in helping us understand the characters and the story, but there is yet another question that is often overlooked. What would be happening in the lives of the characters if these events we see in the story weren't taking place?

Beginning screenwriters often forget that characters need to have apparent lives that extend beyond the world of this specific story. If the only elements in the lives of the characters are those shown in the story, then the audience senses that the characters are obedient to the storyteller; they only exist while they are on screen and do not have a "life." So in addition to envisioning the events in the lives of the characters, the writer must also know what other plans each character would be pursuing if the events of the story weren't happening. In fact, one of the most effective means of creating a sense of life in characters is to develop tension between what the story demands of the character and what the character would prefer to do. If the character only reluctantly does what the story requires, this dynamic expands our understanding of the character's life well beyond the limits of the story alone.

This dynamic is fairly obvious in stories where a character is thrust into a situation not of his or her own creation, such as Ben-Hur or The Terminator or It's a Wonderful Life. But what if the characters volunteer for the dilemmas they face in the story, as occurs in The Talented Mr. Ripley or Rocky or Jaws or Some Like It Hot? Even when the characters make a conscious and informed choice to pursue a line of action that leads to the events in the story, there are other desires still at work inside them, other things they might be doing. No choice is made in a void, and each of these characters faces a moment of decision to pursue the events in the story instead of other things.

A good example of this dynamic is Schindler's List. Schindler voluntarily enters into his dangerous mission of rescuing Jews from the Nazi machinery, but his decision comes when he is weighing the consequences of action versus the consequences of inaction. Throughout the story, he is plagued by "what ifs" — what if he hadn't started this, what if he'd done more. We are shown many examples of his nearly doing other things or being tempted in other directions and having to reaffirm his commitment to the line of action he's taken. In Three Colors: Red, Valentine voluntarily returns the injured dog to the judge and continues to visit him, yet it is clear that there are other elements in her life, some of which she continually tries to return to, only to find herself drawn back into the judge's world.

The World of the Story

The characters and the events in their lives are not the only parts of a story that need to be imagined prior to the beginning of the storytelling. The world the story takes place in must also be created and has the same requirements of specificity and universality as do characters and events. And again, writers starting out fall into two camps — too vague and too exclusive. Even in an historical drama based on a real person who lived on one specific block of one city in one brief time period, the writer must discover the aspects of that specific location and its time and ethos that provoke the memories and imagination of the audience. Time and place, setting and mood and atmosphere don't come from a void. Even if a story is set in a fictional world, a fantasy world, or "the final frontier," there are aspects of that world that reflect back on our world. It is these aspects — and the variations on them given in the specific world of the story — that help create the connection with the audience. How does the story world we are asked to enter compare to the world we live in? How does it reflect or challenge our feelings about our world?

Even "our world" or a supposedly naturalistic story setting must be envisioned clearly, from the ground up. It may surprise many writers to realize that it is their own worldview that has perhaps the greatest impact on the world they invent for their story — even if it's "this one." Is this a naturalistic story where society is good and supportive, or where it's cruel and indifferent? Is the atmosphere dark and gloomy, or bright and sunny? Do most people lie and cheat whenever they can get away with it, or are they basically honest, if flawed? Can nature kill you, or will it provide you with sustenance? Are the police enemies or saviors? Is water life-giving or a killer? Nothing can be taken for granted in the creation of a story's world, right down to the food and water. While the world may appear exactly like the one outside our door — people wear the current fashions, eat "regular" food, drive normal cars, and obey all the laws of physics and the universe as we perceive it — there is another layer at work here.

This other layer, which is grounded in philosophy, is ultimately more important in storytelling than the outward trappings of the world. Clearly we need the visuals, we need to be able to see what it looks like, what the living spaces are, how the inhabitants fit into the landscape, whatever it is. But the world could look like Eden and be filled with cannibals. It could look like Hell and be populated with ragtag saints. Compare the futuristic worlds of Alien, Star Wars, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Sleeper. Or compare the "realistic" worlds of American Beauty, When Harry Met Sally, Enemy of the State, and Out of Sight. Each of these stories creates its own variation on what is real, how the world and its inhabitants coexist, the feel and look of the world, and the undercurrent of well-being or its utter absence. A penthouse and a ghetto both exist in the same universe and have a view of each other; which do we spend more of our time in, and which is "happier" or more supportive, which is subliminally being fostered by the writer and which is subliminally being criticized? The choice is always up to the writer.


Excerpted from How to Build a Great Screenplay by David Howard. Copyright © 2004 David Howard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Howard is the founding director of the graduate screenwriting program at USC, where he teaches various courses in screenwriting. His students have scripted such successful films as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Air Force One, Permanent Midnight, and Natural Born Killers. The coauthor (with Edward Mabley) of The Tools of Screenwriting, he lives in Los Angeles, California.

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